Reducing both crime and imprisonment

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Dec 14 2011.    Rick Linden

The Harper government is committed to spending billions of dollars on prisons in order to crack down on crime. Those who oppose this approach are called soft on crime and accused of not standing up for victims, and the ensuing debate typically falls along party lines.

However, partisan politics aside, evidence shows that a prison-focused approach will do little to either reduce the number of victims or to help them deal with the consequences of their victimization. But there are measures that are effective — and positive examples we can follow.

Many criminologists would agree that the Conservatives have some things right.

First, Canada does have too much crime. Far too many Canadians are victimized and the Department of Justice has recently estimated that the annual cost of crime is $100 billion.

Second, victims are not well treated in Canada. Little is spent on victims and there have only been marginal improvements in this over the last several years, no matter which party is in power. Despite their rhetoric, the Conservatives are investing only token amounts in actually improving services for victims.

Cracking down on crime through increasing penalties and implementing mandatory minimum sentences does little or nothing to reduce crime or make Canada safer.

Economists Steven Durlauf and Daniel Nagin recently reviewed dozens of studies on the deterrent effects of imprisonment and concluded that increases in sentencing severity and mandatory minimum sentences have little or no impact on crime. This is likely because the vast majority of offences do not result in conviction or imprisonment and the remote chance of receiving a very harsh sentence does not stop offenders from committing crimes.

If more prisons aren’t the answer, what can the government do to reduce crime?

We know that certainty of punishment is much more important than severity so criminal justice resources should focus on increasing the certainty of punishment rather than on expanding prisons.

The best way of increasing certainty is to use a targeted deterrence strategy directed at high-rate offenders. Serious offenders are told they will be getting special attention and that there will be zero tolerance for breaking the law. Teams of police and probation and parole officers are assigned to ensure that these promises are kept. Offenders are also given extensive support if they choose to leave their criminal lifestyles.

The Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy is an example of a targeted deterrence program. In 2006, Winnipeg’s auto theft rate was about 80 per cent higher than the next highest Canadian or U.S. city. One in every five crimes in Winnipeg was an auto theft.

An interagency team identified more than 100 high-rate offenders and told them they would receive curfew checks every three hours and that violations would result in charges.

The program also included a mandatory vehicle immobilizer program, enhanced social programming for high-risk youth, and community-based programs for other at-risk young people.

Since 2006, auto theft rates have dropped by 83 per cent and Winnipeg has 11,000 fewer crimes each year. The $50 million cost of the program was quickly repaid, and Winnipeg motorists now save more than $30 million a year in their insurance premiums.

An earlier targeted deterrence program reduced gang homicides in Boston by 63 per cent. After successfully duplicating this program in several other cities, the U.S. government decided to invest billions of dollars supporting similar programs across the country as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods.

In contrast, the Canadian government tackled gang shootings in 2006 by legislating mandatory minimum five-year sentences for gun crimes. In the three years following this legislation, gang homicides and handgun homicides actually increased before declining in 2010.

These very dramatic crime reductions in Winnipeg and Boston required no new laws and resulted in fewer people in prison. Thus it is possible to simultaneously reduce both crime and imprisonment.

If sanctions are certain, they need not be severe to cut crime. The evidence shows that we can have both less crime and fewer people in jail, which would help cut government spending.

Rather than wasting billions on new prisons, Canadians should invest this money in increasing the certainty of arrest for high-risk offenders, expanding proven social development programs to reduce potential offenders, and providing real support to victims of crime.

If Canadians want to declare war on crime, we should at least use modern weapons.

Rick Linden teaches criminology at the University of Manitoba, and is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, an online resource for journalists covering health policy. He is co-chair of Manitoba’s Auto Theft Task Force and serves on the management committee of Winnipeg’s Gang Response and Suppression Program.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1102269–reducing-both-crime-and-imprisonment >

1 Comment

  1. To reduce millions spend on the criminal justice system, I think that early educational intervention is an investment in the lives of young children that may yield both immediate and future returns. Early intervention is an investment which may not yield immediate returns but in
    the long term, returns will by far surpass the amount invested. This kind of investment is usually in the public’s interest in that it reduces crime and delinquency, reduces the number of children at risk of school dropout, it provides parents with needed skills, it improves the social conditions of communities and its members, it provides economic relief for economically
    deprived families and in some cases provides employment for those families. The intention of early intervention is to develop children and young people into healthy and productive adults who would contribute meaningfully to society; this will eventually reduce crime and delinquency and make communities safer. Studies have shown that criminal acts against victims could have been prevented if there had been intervention in the perpetrators life in his or her early years. Intervention would have assisted him or her to understand the effect and consequences of crime on the victim, the community, and the state. The perpetrators would have benefited from treatment programs for any problems he or she was experiencing and would have been equipped with the tools and resources to deal with problems of violence. As well as receive counselling that might have assisted in helping to change their unwanted attitudes and antisocial behaviours.

    There is no quick fix or straight forward solution for reducing crime; neither are there any short term measures to attack crime and delinquency that will bring about long term or lasting solutions. Short- term measures that are used to reduce crime are considered to be crime control mechanisms and they only last for a short period. Any measure that is introduced to minimize or reduce crime and delinquency must be a long term investment by government and other social partners. These long- term measures must be an investment in the people and the community and should include poverty alleviation, education, improved social conditions, improved facilities for recreation, and improved housing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *